Law in the Internet Society

Influence Operation Through "Closure" on Social Media

-- By KuanHsinHuang - 11 Oct 2019

I Introduction

A. Influence operations, or disinformation, are growing stronger and more pervasive through social media, imposing severe threat to both individual autonomy and democratic society. Most studies contribute the rise of influence operation on social media to targeting and the echo chamber effect. However, along with personalization and targeting, this paper identifies a fundamental element that deserves attention: “closure” in information flows on social media.

B. Threat model

For this paper, influence operation is defined as organized information dissemination and amplification by state or non-state to reach epistemic or sentiments that yield actors (influencers) with political advantages. And depending on influencers’ strategy, the manufactured epistemic or sentiments can be either one and commonly shared or narrowly tailored based on characteristics of the targeted individual. This paper focuses on the latter, where existing social tensions were artificially aggravated in order to sow discord and destabilize the society.

II Closure

A. What is "closure"

Closure is a state that embeds certain degree of difficulty to be observed by non-participants. The object under observation varies, for example, when identity is at issue, then high closure may render anonymity. In the context of countering disinformation, an oversight may involve perceiving the content, the identity of the disseminator and receiver, and the web of information flows (collectively refer to as “information flows”).

Constructed in the architecture of closure, social media allows influencers to operate with high obscurity. Namely, aside people being isolated (personalize) and targeted, due to closure inserting walls in between individuals, it is extremely difficult for the public to be aware of undercurrent of influence operations.

Closure is relative to who the observer is. From social media operators’ perspective, they have the “eye of gods” where every activity is clear, detailed, and centralized. If the platform operators genuinely want to curb influence operation, the challenges they face do not include closure. And in situations where social media is under pressure to share information with the government, or that tapping or surveillance is in place, closure is relatively low for the central authority. Nonetheless, this paper concerns the function of civil society, which should not entirely rely on the incumbents of political and economic power. Thus, this paper considers the standpoints of the civil society (i.e. the individuals, grassroot watchdogs, and academics), where closure of social media is asymmetrically high.

Closure is not absolute evil. Like anonymity and privacy, closure allows autonomy of selfhood and resistant against coercive power. But it is also crucial to acknowledge that closure proliferates influence operation. And in the context of social media, the embedding closure becomes an unseen highway for personalized targeted influence.

B. Comparison to Closure in pre-social media age

Before social media became people’s main diet for news and perspectives, mass media was the dominant source for people to access political information and resonating perspectives. Since the information flows are publically accessible, even if different channels tried to shape radical opinions or even facilitate disinformation, the low closure enables the civil society to respond and put pressure on undue influence. Plus, there are regulations in place that hold media outlets responsible for the campaign ads they disseminate to some extent.

However, those counteracts become unfeasible in the social media context since social media’s high closure shuts offthe functions of social control and existing regulatory oversight. In addition to newsfeeds and ads, social media vastly facilitates many other forms of social interactions (e.g. online grouping, direct persuasion). These activities open the door to influence operation not only because social media provides fast, costless, and targetable influence channels, but also essential closure that blocks public scrutiny.

C.Layers of closure in social media

On social media, closure is like oxygen, too fundamental to be noticed. This section attempts to analyze closure on social media by different layers, nature, degree and effect.

Fundational layer: the nature of individual computer usage

The most foundational layer of closure originates from the computer itself. Any experience with a computer involves some degree of closure. This simply stems from the fact that personal use of computer is an individualized and cannot be observed by fellow citizens. This is different with mass media. People do not tune into the same channel, but there is an openness in mass media that makes all content accessible and observable to general public. This underlying layer of closure is low, ubiquitous, and hard to alter. It’s low degree of closure makes it unsubstantial in the past, but as most online services become increasingly personalized and targeting, (e.g. tailored search results, cookie enabled target ads permeating most websites), closure deserves more attention.

Second layer: Social media design decisions

Next layer of closure on social media derives from the design decisions of the platform operator. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok? , and every social media have their own setting of how the information flows around the platform. Borrowing from Lessig’s “code is law” concept, by designing the mechanisms of feeds, sponsored contents, and interactions, the platforms consciously or indirectly determines the degree of closure. Take Facebook for example, users can only see the contents that are predetermined by Facebook, which is personalization. And as Facebook changed its business model from ads to targeting ads, targeting influence kicks in. These all need to happen with closure. The feeds I consume is not observable to fellow citizens; in fact, nobody knows what information is disseminated with what tactics. In addition, groups on Facebook adds another dimension of closure. Anyone (including the influencers) can curate a private group that effectively utilize homophily and tribalism which is unnoticeable to the larger society. The effect of closure in this layer can be hugely impactful, but it is important to understand that these are results of series of decisions instead of technological determinism. There is always room to redesign if necessary, or find ways to preserve the merits while alleviate the harm.

III. Conclusion

Closure is in itself neutral, and can be preferable in the context of privacy and individual autonomy against the powerful. However, we need to study how closure plays a role in influence operation, especially that disinformation on social media has become a reality globally. As most researches devote toward personalization and targeting, this paper tries to show that closure is an indispensable element to manufacture polarization through social media.

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r1 - 11 Oct 2019 - 22:40:26 - KuanHsinHuang
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